Once / Page 23

Page 23


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At the suggestion, the King’s face relaxed. “No—you two go. Enjoy yourselves.”

As they watched us walk away, Reginald turned to Clara, his notepad still in his hand. “Perhaps you saw one of the Palace workers?” he asked.

“I know what I saw,” Clara hissed. She looked at Rose, who shook her head slightly, signaling for her to let it go.

I followed Charles through the marketplace, around the wide, sparkling pools, thankful when we were far from the table. He led me across the Palace’s marble lobby, where the old gaming machines still stood, shrouded in gray cloths. All the while two soldiers trailed behind us, their steps keeping time with ours, their rifles swinging on their backs. “I’m sorry about that,” he said as we stepped into the sun. We crossed a narrow bridge to where a massive fountain spread out toward the sidewalk.

“What are you sorry about?” I asked.

“I have a feeling I had something to do with that.” A tuft of thick black hair fell across his forehead. He smiled, combing it back with his fingers.

“Not everything has to do with you,” I snapped. A cluster of people on the street turned, studying us, the soldiers gesturing for them to stay back.

“I think what you mean is, Thank you, Charles, for rescuing me from that inquisition.” He threw his hands up in defense. “I’m just saying. I think maybe—just maybe—Clara has a little bit of a crush on me. At least that’s how it’s seemed since … always.”

I looked at him. Charles’s face was so sincere, his pale cheeks flushed. I couldn’t help but laugh. “Maybe you’re right,” I admitted. Even if Clara had seen me leave last night, I doubted she cared what I did with my free time. She seemed to take more issue with Charles sitting beside me at meals, or the way he leaned forward when he spoke to me, so there were no more than a few inches between us.

“We grew up together in the City,” he added. “The last ten years we’ve been the youngest people living in the Palace. Clara is incredibly smart. She’s talked about studying at the teaching hospital to be a doctor. Her mother is steering her in a different direction, though.” He raised his eyebrows, as if to say, Toward me.

“I see.” I nodded, thinking of the cold, calculating look Clara had given me when we first met.

People gathered along the rim of the great fountain. I stared at our reflection in the water, two shadows rippling with the wind. Charles didn’t take his eyes off me. “So how have you found the City? You don’t seem in love with it the way everyone else is.”

I thought of Caleb’s arm around me last night, how music and smoke had filled the room. Our bodies pressed together in the doorway. I smiled, the heat rising in my cheeks. “It has its advantages.”

Charles inched closer to me, his shoulder pressing against mine. “Can you keep a secret?” He studied my face. “My father would have chosen nearly any city over this one. Despite what he told the King, he wasn’t convinced until a few years into the restoration that Las Vegas would work. It was my mother who knew this was the right place. Most of the hotels were empty at the time of the plague. The buildings were easily stripped of advertisements. It’s so separate from everything else—a haven. She always knew.”

“Women’s intuition?” I asked, remembering a phrase I’d heard at School.

“Must’ve been,” he said. He stared out over the fountain. A little boy with a plaid cap was kneeling on the stone ledge, peering into the water. “She’s been having a hard time without him. She keeps to herself a lot. As bad as this sounds, part of me wants to know what it’s like to love someone that much.”

I stared at the tiny stones piled up in the bottom of the fountain. I’d thought of saying it to Caleb before, of saying those three specific words—the ones the Teachers had warned us about. I’d decided in the stillness of Maeve’s house, the quiet night surrounding me, that I meant those words for Caleb. Nothing was as persistent, as relentless, working its way through me, pulling at every thought.

When I turned, Charles was still looking at me. “Sometimes it’s terrifying, though. The idea of being so close to someone.” He searched my expression. “Do you know what I mean? Am I making any sense?”

The question hovered in the air between us. I remembered my first days in Califia, how I’d watched the shadowy city over the bridge, imagining what Caleb was doing there, if he’d gotten in contact with the Trail. The nightmares came soon after: Caleb standing by the water, blood running down his leg, turning the entire bay a rancid purple. “I do,” I said. “So many things can go wrong.”

Charles stared into the water. “See all of those?” he asked, pointing at the pebbles. “They made this into a memorial of sorts. People would bring stones here and throw them into the fountain, one for every loved one they lost in the plague.”

He walked over to the shrubs that lined the conservatory building and plucked several tiny rocks from the ground beneath, rubbing the dirt off with his fingers. “Do you want a few?” he asked, offering them to me.

“Just one.” I took the smooth brown stone in my hand. It was shaped like an almond—one side slightly wider than the other. I ran my fingers over it, wondering what my mother would’ve thought if she knew I was standing here, inside the new capital, imprisoned by the man she’d fallen in love with so many years before. I could nearly see her face, smell the mint balm she always smeared on her lips, leaving slippery smudges on my cheeks when she kissed me. I let the pebble slip through my fingers into the water below. It settled at the bottom, disappearing among the others, the surface still rippling in its wake.

We stood in silence for a minute. The wind whipped around us, a fleeting relief from the heat. Two older women approached the edge of the fountain, clutching worn photos in their hands. They watched as others lined up along the stone ledge. “What exactly is everyone waiting for?” I asked.

“You’ll see …,” Charles said. He checked his watch. “In three … two … one …” Music sounded on the main road. Everyone stepped back. Water burst through the surface of the pool and rocketed toward the sky. It rose and rose and rose, nearly twenty feet in the air. The little boy stood up on the stone ledge and clapped. Charles’s face was lit up like a child’s. He hooted loudly, throwing his fist in the air, a sight that made even the soldiers laugh.

The wind shifted, blowing the spray at us and soaking the front of my dress. The cold water felt good on my skin. I closed my eyes, the claps and cheers swelling around me, and enjoyed those last few moments away from the Palace.

twenty

CLARA AND I STARTED UP THE LONG SPIRAL ESCALATORS TO the gallery on the second-floor mezzanine. I still hadn’t gotten used to the moving metal stairs; I never knew whether to climb them or just stand there, holding the rail and gliding along. Light streamed in from the atrium above us. I took in the ceiling murals and the giant statues of robed women, the towering marble pillars, the horse statue below, leaping in midair, the fountains that shot up from still, turquoise pools. In some horrible way, the Palace was just as Pip had always imagined it—a gleaming model of perfection.

I kept my eyes on the scenery, trying to pretend I was alone. This morning, the King had suggested Clara take me on a tour of the art gallery. He said it would be nice for us to spend time together so I could get to know my cousin. I knew neither statement was true but I obliged, hoping it would make me seem happy with my place in the Palace. Like a girl with no secrets.


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